North Dakota’s Image: We Just Don’t Give a Damn

It’s not important whether you see a refinery stack from the highest point in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit. What’s important is what comes out of that stack.

Meridian Energy’s publicity stunt the other night, hoisting a weather balloon from the site of their proposed refinery just three miles from the Park and proving that it couldn’t be seen from Buck Hill, might have been good headlines, but it didn’t mean a damn thing. You can see a lot of crap from Buck Hill, including cell phone towers, a couple dozen oil wells, gas flares, storage tank batteries, and scoria roads leading to all of them, mostly courtesy of the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Another obscure stack sticking up a few feet above the horizon would just add a little bit to the clutter.

It's not the stack, it's what comes out of the stack that is important.
It’s not the stack, it’s what comes out of the stack that is important.

But anyone who’s driven past the Tesoro Refinery in Mandan knows the plume from the stack rises several times higher than the stack itself. That’s what would be visible from much of the eastern half of the park—maybe even all of it. Meridian isn’t talking about that.

We’ve grown pretty accustomed to that big white plume in Bismarck-Mandan, and some days, against a bright blue sky, when there’s no wind blowing, it’s almost pretty. Well, not really. Until you start wondering what’s in it. I know, I know, it’s mostly water, in the form of steam. Most industrial sites these days, especially out here on the prairie, are pretty careful about what they spew into the air. The EPA’s Clean Air Act rules help (thank you Richard Nixon). It just LOOKS like pollution. But still . . .

But the same plume on the park’s eastern boundary would be pretty distracting to visitors who’ve driven thousands of miles to see our Bad Lands, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the clear North Dakota sky.  Even if it’s mostly water rising high into the air, those visitors won’t know that, and they’ll be more than a little miffed at North Dakota for allowing such a thing in the spectacular North Dakota Bad Lands, right on the boundary of a National Park. As in “What the Hell was North Dakota thinking, letting them build a polluting refinery right next to a National Park? What kind of state is this anyway?”

Our reputation as a state is at stake here. Is this really the image we want to project? Do we really want to be known as the state that let an irresponsible California company put a big white smoke-belching oil refinery beside the National Park named for America’s Conservation President, Theodore Roosevelt? That thought makes me sad.

Oh, I know, the Meridian folks are saying they “might not” have a plume. They’re considering a “dry cooled” process that won’t produce a plume. Well, it that’s the case, then what the hell is your stack there for, Meridian, the one you’re so proud of hiding? Because of your proximity to the National Park with its Class I Air Quality status, you’re not allowed to discharge any particulates, so if you’re not going to emit a plume of steam, what do you need a stack for?  Mighty convenient that no one raised the issue of the plume at Wednesday’s Billings County Commission meeting, but if they had, the company was ready to say “we haven’t decided that yet. We might not have one.”

Here’s what else is convenient: Meridian stalled submitting its application for an Air Quality Permit to the State Health Department until the Billings County Commissioners agreed Wednesday to a zoning change for the land on which the refinery will be located. So the refinery has an approved site but no one really knows just how the company will try to meet air quality standards established by the federal Clean Air Act. You can bet your ass that application is sitting on a CEO’s desk and will be mailed before the week is out, now that they have the zoning change. The application will have to say whether they will have a plume or not. We’ll see.

The good news in all of this is that before the refinery is built, they will have to prove that they will not pollute the air to the extent that the National Park loses Class I Air Quality. In the application to the State Health Department, which enforces federal Clean Air Standards in North Dakota (I know—groan), they must tell what steps they will be taking to not foul the Park’s air. If the Health Department believes them, they can issue a permit to construct the plant. We’re in pretty much uncharted waters here—no one’s ever built an oil refinery three miles from a National Park before, that I know of. Gee, imagine that.

The Health Department says it could take a year after they get the application, to do the modeling to see if what Meridian says they will do will actually work. That gives Meridian time to see if the price of the gasoline they will be producing rises to a level that will make the plant profitable. That’s a big If. The current low cost of a barrel of oil is actually beneficial to the refinery, but the product that comes out of that oil must be worth enough to justify producing it.

Then there’s the matter of who will buy it. As I understand it, the Tesoro refinery in Mandan already produces enough gas for North Dakota. Added to that supply is Tesoro’s newly-acquired refinery 25 miles down the railroad at Dickinson. Tesoro bought it from MDU before it bankrupted MDU. With gas at $2.29 a gallon, it didn’t work for MDU. I’m not sure how Tesoro plans to handle it. And those who argue about safety and say we should be refining oil here instead of shipping it out of state are ignoring the fact that if the refinery is built, we’ll be shipping the much more volatile gasoline out of state.

Frankly, unless gas prices rise substantially, I don’t think the refinery will be built. But if it is, and if the company has any conscience at all, any sense of community and respect for a state which is going to be its new home, there’s not a good reason in the world why it could not be built somewhere else. Yes, they need access to crude oil, and they need access to the railroads, but there’s a lot of miles of railroad running through oil country—even if it was just ten miles down the track.

As I sat through Wednesday’s meeting and listened to people argue against the zoning change, I tried to come up with what I thought might be the telling argument for not putting the refinery there. Finally, former Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said it: “Three miles from a National Park is just not a good place to put a refinery.” It’s that simple. Think about it.

The other factor is, as I wrote here earlier, Meridian has plans for an industrial zone all the way to Belfield, lining the road to the National Park with all kinds of industrial developments and the trucks that service them. Valerie Naylor pointed out at Wednesday’s meeting that lining the entrance to a National Park with industry might just turn people off, and cause them to say “Nah, let’s just keep going. This doesn’t look like a place we want to stop.” Especially if the industrial development and trucks are situated under a huge white plume of what looks like smoky pollution to passers-by.

They might not be able to see that stack from the Park, but they’re sure as hell going to see it as they approach the park. Welcome to North Dakota, where we’ll pay any aesthetic and environmental price for 200 jobs, even the desecration of a National Park. Well, shame on us. Are you listening, North Dakota Tourism Director Sara Coleman, and Governor Jack Dalrymple? Nah, never mind, we know better. But are you listening, Marvin Nelson and Doug Burgum? One of you is going to be Governor when decision time arrives next year.

6 thoughts on “North Dakota’s Image: We Just Don’t Give a Damn

  1. Very well said, Jim! Valerie put it correctly. The site is just inappropriate. Why anybody would select such an obviously controversial site when other sites are readily available is not rationally understandable. Was it done to deliberately provoke a fight?
    After sitting through the hearing I still have some questions. 1. What do the two other commissioners (other than Jim Arthoud) do? They did not utter ten words between them in four and a half hours. 2. Who actually owns Meridian Energy? Who is putting up the money for this billion dollar project? Some California billionaires? 20,000 stockholders? Some Arab oil sheiks? The Chinese army? We should be able to know. 3. What are the actual salaries that will be paid to the workers? The company says an average of $100,000/year. But an average can be greatly skewed by two or three 7 figure salaries paid to top managers. Better to see the median salary but when I asked the Meridian guy wouldn’t answer. Is this a real company or a shell hiding a few shady scam artists? From the incompleteness of their engineering plans I am not sure what they are up to.

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  2. Being flabbergasted isn’t even close to my response. Anger is much closer. Maybe even rage. Billings County greed. State governance abdication. Meridian Energy rapists. Once established, such development will never be undone, and what was once one of the last pure landscapes will be lost; the way of life so crucial to the heart and soul of our nation will be crushed. Wrath. Yep. sew, boys and see what you reap.

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  3. 1. Larry Heilmann’s Question #2 about Meridian Energy and its financial picture prompts some follow-up questions. Has Meridian Energy ever built a refinery? Where? How large? Successful? Any problems?
    2. Now, a question about the North Dakota Industrial Commission and the enforcement staff that works for it. What has happened here? Is there any enforcement or regulation happening at all of the oil industry? My impression is that it wasn’t that way when I lived in western ND from 1980-1995.How can this get turned around? More importantly, when is the press going to ask these questions of the gubernatorial candidates? Does either of them have a platform on energy development?
    3. A group with expertise, knowledge of the Clean Air Act and national parks, like the Sierra Club, needs to get on this refinery plan.Somebody contact them!
    4.A story in the Bismarck Tribune in June quoted the Meridian spokesman as saying they had a Plan B location in the Belfield-Fryburg area if the site near the park didn’t work. Billings County Commission didn’t negotiate enough with Meridian.
    5. Jim, this is a for-profit corporation. Its employees/owners don’t care about North Dakota.This is Capitalism in its purest form. Friends are friends and business is business. The state is seen as a backwater or Third World state with one asset, oil, that this company wants to refine and profit from. This situation is how John D. Rockefeller built his millions on oil refineries more than 100 years ago.
    6. This nation needs a realistic, balanced, forward-looking energy policy.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

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  4. It never ceases to amaze me how fast talking slick sales types with promises of great wealth and new jobs (usually not the case once the project is brought to fruition) are so trusted by my local friends and neighbors.

    It has taken years and lots of heartache for the Richardton ethanol plant to breakeven while burning through lots of local people’s hard earned saving.

    The Dakota Refinery blew through its local investors’ money and big job dreams a lot faster, but it will be years before us taxpayers see any return for the precious infrastructure dollars like that shiny new interstate access ramp with its grand overpass to service that industrial plant.

    The fast talking guys who sell refinery equipment and the financial investment consultants are the only happy campers as they sit on their private planes and over a drink brag about how naive we dumb country folks are.

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  5. The first paragraph of your commentary is all that needs to be said. The point of legitimate public concern is not the stack but rather what it emits and from what distance it constitutes visual blight. Methinks that Meridian Energy needs to decamp at least to the Belfield-Fryburg area post-haste.

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  6. Only In North Dakota would a company EVEN propose an industrial complex next to a National Park. Our reputation precedes us.

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